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Reading 0-2 Middlesbrough

There was probably enough on the game at the weekend to call it a six-pointer, and The Royals failed to extend their advantage over the chasing pack.

First and foremost, while Reading have lost the last three at home, the doom-mongering about playing at The Madejski is overdoing it. Yes, Reading have not been very good on their own patch for the last few seasons but that has markedly improved this campaign. Despite the losses, they've posted 27 points from 16 games, compared to 25, 30, and 23 in the full seasons since our play-off defeat.

Not only have we improved in relation to ourselves, but we're also very respectable in the wider Championship picture. Only five teams have more points at home, and they're the five teams that occupy the top six with us. The teams we've lost against recently are the second-best team in the division, a team unbeaten in seven with the seventh-best away record, and a Boro side who would have had no trouble getting up for potentially one of the biggest games of their season. A bad pattern, but not irreversible.

This neatly brings us on to the game itself, where it is safe to say that the outcome, while not entirely predictable, should be no shock. Five months since the start of the season and Reading are still a side that rely on their transition (or set pieces) to create attacking opportunities. That's difficult against a team drilled by Warnock at the best of times, and made harder still when they go a goal up inside 25 minutes.

Watmore drops back into shape, rather than pressing the ball high up the field

What Middlesbrough did best was making it hard for Reading to play out from the back. Their coaching staff were consistently yelling at their attackers to drop and pack the middle, rather than pressing. It's a tactic we had no answer for. Boro were particularly happy to allow Morrison to have the ball, and therefore the defender had to take the responsibility to move play forward.

Morrison carries the ball forward, as Boro don't press the ball

In the second half in particular he began driving forward into space, before picking players out or playing raking forward balls. He played those passes better than one may have expected, but they were always difficult passes to control, to relatively safe areas for the away side to defend. If there was ever a time to try Tom Holmes at centre back, this was probably it. (Before the inevitable twitter storm that would occur if anybody actually read these things, I think Morrison has been good this year, but I'm not sure he's the man you want on the ball against a tight defence 2-0 down)

Boro mark the options in midfield, and cut off passing lanes

While the away side may have been passive when the ball was with the Reading backline, they were aggressive once the ball moved forward. They marked man-to-man over the rest of the pitch and starved the ball carrier of time, space, and options. That somewhat negated Reading's constant rotation into defensive midfield, as they weren't able to shake off the opposition. Ovie, Joao, and Olise may have the ability to open space, but I think we saw the limitations of others.

Which is part of the reason I'm slightly surprised by the withdrawal of Semedo for the second half. Rinomhota may be a safer option, in that he doesn't have the same tendency to switch off, but he doesn't have the same vision. Potentially it's because Pauno figured Semedo would have to be taking the ball on the turn, something he's shown himself to be poor at, but if they could have engineered situations where he was facing forward then he would have offered more. Or maybe we could have something more radical like moving Olise deep and bringing on Aluko at CAM or, heaven forbid, a change of shape.

Olise picks an exquisite, line-breaking pass

All of this showed just how much we miss having John Swift to play out from deep. To be able to pick pinpoint passes and play through the lines. We saw it briefly with Olise as he found forward passes from deep and helped to set up a chance for Ejaria on the edge of the box, but when he picked the ball up off the defence that left only Ovie with the same technical ability to receive his passes between the lines.

Olise's performance was slightly undervalued in my eyes. He played six key passes, predominantly from set-pieces but not exclusively. McIntyre and Joao both had headers off-target from corners that were difficult chances but good deliveries. He wasn't faultless, but generally lost possession attempting to force play in a way nobody else would. The game can somewhat be summed up by his frustration at Morrison not making an angle when asked in the first half, before Olise turned into trouble trying to do it all himself.

Semedo and McIntyre could choose to watch the ball or the man. It wasn't the only mistake, but it made things harder.

Coming back to Semedo, his game had admittedly already been tainted by his awful marking at the free-kick that saw Middlesbrough go in front. Especially galling given the midfielder seemed to mainly be in the side to win first contact from dead ball situations. He started off behind the striker but sat in the screen from goal kicks where he was completely dominant aerially. But, at the free-kick that saw the game's first goal, he completely failed on that task.

The midfielder just didn't seem to be alive to Fry's run, and wasn't strong enough to put off the header across goal. Likewise, McIntyre never really picked up Fletcher's run and didn't manage to cut out the pass. There was some 'clever' play (I'm clutching at straws) from Boro in the sense that they put themselves on the opposite side of the Reading defence, so that the defenders had to choose whether to watch the ball or player but players at this level should be good enough to cope.

Okay, maybe two mistakes on two goals is enough to bring someone off.

Again, Olise is watching the ball rather than his man - who gets just enough space.

The midfielder probably should have done slightly better for goal #2 as well, as Watmore managed to get in front of him for the initial throw, but Josh Laurent also failed to disrupt Morsy's run into the box. Olise slightly cheated, maybe expecting to be able to put a tackle in, and gave Bola a smidgen of space that he took full advantage of. Rafael will probably be disappointed not to tip over after getting a hand to it, but it was travelling.

This is another reason why we shouldn't over-react to results. The last three games have all been tight, and all been decided by small misjudgments, rather than any huge structural issues (defensively anyway). Richards did something similar for Brentford's equaliser that was punished by arguably one of the better players in the division, Millwall had two breaks of the ball, and Bola scored a goal that 9 times out of 10 doesn't end up in the back of the net. If Reading fans are going to have xG held over their head in the early part of this season, it should also be used to show that three losses is arguably not a fair return.

To end, I just want to touch on BBCRB again bemoaning the lack of Holmes at RB, for absolutely no reason as far as I can tell. They somehow put Semedo losing a header from a free-kick, and Olise being a little excited to win the ball, on Yiadom's shoulders. And yet when Yiadom wins the ball back where Holmes wouldn't - setting up a dangerous counter attack in the process - then no credit is given. Think of how good Reading matches would be if they weren't commentated on by someone who knows nothing about football.

On paper, the upcoming run of fixtures is a little easier, and maybe that's what's needed to steady the ship. Failure to beat Wycombe would definitely be a cause for concern - but there's very little reason to believe that will be the case.


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